The Occupy Wall Street protesters aren’t actually protesting on Wall Street. They would like to, but the New York Police Department (NYPD) has fenced up large chunks of Wall Street and the surrounding area in the financial district. They even fenced off the Wall Street Bull bronze sculpture.
The protesters, instead, are herded to a nearby public park.
What New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD are doing is legal; there is precedent in the U.S. for restricting the location of protests. The restriction, called free speech zones, is often used to ensure the safety of the protestors and the public, especially in public transportation centers.
What’s legal, however, is not always ethical and constitutional. In this case, the U.S. government is violating the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The American independence movement was partially forged from the resistance against British political oppression. When the time came for the Founding Fathers to draft the U.S. Constitution, they specifically inserted the right-to-assembly phrase to uphold the right to public political protests.
The kind of public protests protected by the Constitution has several characteristics: they are peaceful, involve the public gathering of a group of people, and almost always take place in symbolically important places.
On the international stage, the U.S. government has consistently supported this kind of protest and condemned governments that cracked down on them.
In 1989, it condemned the Chinese military’s forceful clearing of the Tiananmen Square protesters. In early 2011, it condemned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for forcefully removing protester from Tahrir Square.
In both instances, the political protests took place at symbolically important locations. When told to leave those locations, the protesters refused. When the government forcefully tried to remove them, the U.S. condemned and categorized their actions as oppressive.
The situation is the same in the Occupy Wall Street protest. To protest financial corruption, the protesters need the right to assemble on Wall Street and around the Charging Bull sculpture.
Fencing them in a small park nearby significantly deprives the spirit of the movement.
Ethically speaking, the NYPD should at most fence off the sidewalks of Wall Street to protesters (to allow Wall Street professionals to walk to work) but allow them to protest on the street, even during business hours.
The cordoning off of Wall Street and surrounding areas by Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD is at best unethical and at worst oppressive. In principle, what they’re doing is no different from what the Chinese government did in 1989 and what the Egyptian government did in 2011.
To their credit, the execution of their tactics has so far been non-lethal and relatively civil, which can't be said for China and Egypt. That, perhaps, is the only difference between Bloomberg and Mubarak.